In a recent guest blog for Gramophone magazine, composer Raymond Yiu writes of his passion for British music and the sad situation in which just one or two works by a composer dominate the perception of that composer’s output. You can read the blog at http://www.gramophone.co.uk/blog/gramophone-guest-blog/sounds-and-sweet-airs-that-give-delight.
Yiu calls this situation ‘Holst Syndrome’ – a most apt name for it, owing to Holst’s output being overshadowed by one work (overshadowed in terms of reception – certainly not musically), and not even the whole of that work: just a couple of movements of his 1914-16 Suite for Large Orchestra, The Planets. It begs the question why people don’t work out from that work and explore some of the other pieces by Holst, although such explorations are not encouraged by the drearily repetitious Classic FM, which is one of the main culprits in defining the limitations of the populist canon of musical works. There is such a remarkable body of work by Holst that is rarely heard, from the joyous Fugal Overture (for orchestra) to the large-scale The Cloud Messenger (alto solo, chorus and orchestra), which I admire enormously. Or why not try the later work Hammersmith, or the Japanese Suite? And if you enjoy song, then look up the Humbert Wolfe songs, which are wonderful.
As Yiu states in his blog post, there are so many facets to English music: there is the quirky and playful (while on the subject of Holst, try The Floral Bandit in the Wolfe songs!); the regal; the exotic and mystical; there are great depths of despair; and of course the ‘pastoral’, which is seen by some as the definition of English music but which is a term that somehow defies full definition and encompasses a broad range of music. I was pleased to see Michael Tippett’s fourth symphony singled out on his list – a marvellous work. There are several lifetime’s worth of listening getting to know all of the music that is available to us – and more keeps being written. I know many byways of British music, but have many paths yet to tread, such as Vaughan Williams’s 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies which I don’t yet know, and the Rubbra symphonies are on my shelves to devour at some point – although there are not only symphonies to discover. But while on the subject of this genre, and to add a little to Raymond Yiu’s list,
I urge you to listen to Kenneth Leighton’s three symphonies (the numbered works – there is also a Symphony for Strings), which are now available on Chandos Records (www.chandos.net). Leighton deserves a larger place in our musical canon. Like Herbert Howells (seek out Howells’s piano concerti or Hymnus Paradisi!), Leighton’s works written for the church are known in choral/cathedral music circles, but very little else is known about or performed. His chamber music is well worth exploring, but for me his symphonies are particularly fine. They are almost cyclical in nature, and the first grows out of an almost Sibelius sound-world into works of lyrical beauty, extraordinary energy and vitality, and great, dark depths. I lament the fact that Leighton died before he was able to complete his fourth… Leighton was also a very fine pianist and wrote much for the piano. If a symphony is too much to bear, then try his late Four Romantic Pieces for piano. They are available for download (very cheaply for such wonderful music!) at The Classical Shop (final four tracks).
So: keep an open mind and don’t be tram-lined into hearing just the few ‘popular’ pieces by any composer. With the internet it is now a very short and easy journey to discover so much more about a composer and his works.